The more things change the more they stay the same, at least that’s what they say. And in the case of the carcinogen found in U.S. tap water that was made famous in the film “Erin Brockovich,” that certainly seems to be true.
For nearly two-thirds of Americans, chromium-6 is a daily fact of life. It’s the deadly carcinogen that spawned the lawsuit at the heart of the Erin Brockovich case in which residents of Hinkley, California sued and won against Pacific Gas & Electric for its culpability in poisoning the area’s groundwater.
But a new study by the non-profit Environmental Working Group has found that two-thirds of Americans may be drinking the dangerous carcinogen in their tap water every day.
Between 2013 and 2016, EWG took over 60,000 water samples from around the country, and over two-thirds of them tested positive for the chemical.
And this could prove to be a serious problem: the National Toxicology Program found that ingesting chromium-6 causes cancer in lab rats and mice. In addition to being linked to lung cancer, it can cause liver damage, reproductive system damage, and problems with brain development.
Currently, California is the only state to regulate chromium-6 levels, mandating that there be no more than ten parts per billion in drinking water. However, according to the state’s own Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in 2008, even that amount is dangerously high. That study recommended levels no higher than 0.02 parts per billion, making the state’s actual rate of 10 ppb 500 times too high.
Chromium is used to make metal plating and stainless steel, and it is a key ingredient in wood preservation and textile manufacturing. Among the cities that tested highest for chromium-6 were Las Vegas, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona, as well as Oklahoma City.
It has been known for over 20 years that hexavalent chromium causes lung cancer when inhaled. But the recent mice and rat studies showed that it can also cause malignant tumors of the mouth and small intestines when it was ingested in water.
“I think it’s resolved, as much as it can be resolved,” said George Alexeeff, deputy director of scientific affairs at California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in an interview with Scientific American.
The Environmental Protection Agency is studying the matter and may issue national guidelines soon.
With the Brockovich case reaping a record-setting jury award of over $300 million dollars for the residents of Hinkley, one has to wonder what the consequences would be across the nation if the EPA admits the current levels are much more dangerous than previously thought.